On 28 March (Thursday), Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made a statement that most Singaporeans might not be ready for an ethnic minority PM. He said this in response to a questioned asked by Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s School of Social Sciences’ public policy and global affairs programme at a forum at the university.
His statement had drawn criticism from a large group of netizens including author and freelance writer at The Economic Intelligence Unit Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh and former associate dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Donald Low.
In the forum, Mr Heng was asked if it is Singapore or the ruling PAP (People’s Action Party) that’s not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister.
Responding to this, Mr Heng asked the audience to raise their hands if they were happy to have an ethnic minority individual as their PM. It appears that many audience members out of the 700 students present raised their hands.
Mr Heng then said, “My own experience in walking the ground, in working with different people from all walks of life, is that the views – if you go by age and by life experience – would be very different”.
He added, “I do think that at the right time, when enough people think that way, we would have, we may have, a minority who becomes the leader of the country. But if you ask me, that whether across the voting population, would that be the outcome, I personally don’t think so,” he was quoted saying in an article by The Straits Times.
Following his statement, author and freelance writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, took his Facebook account to share his viewpoints on Mr Heng’s statement and PAP generally.
Focusing on the bigger issue in Finance Minister’s statement, Vadaketh said that his main concern is “PAP’s repeated use of sophistry to hammer home its ideologies”.
For example, he said that the Government uses empirical evidence only to its advantage. This means that when the evidence supports them, they glorify it but, if it is against them, then PAP convinces its citizens to look at other things like anecdotes, observations and feelings, including race.
“All the available electoral and survey evidence points to the fact that Singaporeans are very comfortable with non-Chinese leaders. Incidentally, this goes all the way to JB Jeyaretnam (JBJ), who won a by-election in 1981 against the PAP’s Chinese candidate, and then held onto his seat in the 1984 general election,” he explained.
Vadaketh then questioned if Mr Heng has excluded all those who voted for JBJ 38 years ago when he mentioned that the older generation is not ready for a non-Chinese PM. “I’m pretty sure if they voted for JBJ then, they’d vote for Tharman today,” he added.
Besides that, he also expressed that PAP conveniently ignores available evidence for other policy areas when it doesn’t suit its objectives, including issues surrounding inequality and hosting the Youth Olympic Games or Formula 1.
“For the latter, I’ve heard all sorts of wishy washy justifications made. “Oh the benefits are intangible! It helps the Singapore brand!” Yes, that nebulous “brand” is the easiest get-out-of-jail card to defend any grandiose project,” he wrote.
He also highlighted that when society’s own biases and prejudices go hand-in-hand with PAP’s, then it appears that no issue seems to be a problem and “there is a sudden deference to the common person”.
Although Vadaketh understands that these are tactics placed by all political parties, but he said that he has the urge to point out to many Singaporeans who still have this rose-tinted view of the PAP and its motives.
“Alas, they’re all just politicians. It’s important for us to think clearly about all these issues so that we can keep improving debate – and well, life – here,” he said.
Upon reading Vadaketh post, Prof Donald Low, senior lecturer at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and former associate dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, shared his post and said he fully agrees to what the author said.
Low, who is the co-author of the book “Hard Truth” with Vadeketh, added that he once asked Mr Heng what is his opinion on the obvious “paradox in Singapore between the fact that Singaporeans have high levels of trust in the government but also that a couple of surveys (such as the World Values Survey) show Singaporeans to have low trust in one another.”
Responding to Low’s question, the Finance Minister’s response was almost the same like what he gave recently – that based on the ground and interactions with residents, he disagreed with the survey finding that Singaporeans didn’t trust one another.
As such, Low who agrees with Vadaketh said that in the absence of evidence, the PAP is rationalising and justifying whatever they wish to believe.
He added, “This is also known as motivated reasoning; your reasoning is driven by your motivations, beliefs and biases, not by evidence.”
Low ended his post by mentioning that in philosophy, the PAP’s method of ignoring evidence when it doesn’t favour them is called “failing Popper’s falsification test, which states that your statement is a meaningless one if you cannot specify the conditions under which it is fake.”